book photo
Modern Design
By Asif Alam
May 1, 2019, midnight

Sit down, man
SITTING USED TO BE CONSIDERED ESSENTIAL to the West; it was presumed that the “great divergence” came because those in the East did not have chairs. A British colonialist in 1851 was disgusted to see Indians squatting while they worked. “All work with their knees nearly on a level with their chin,” he sniffed, “the left hand — when not used as the kangaroo uses his tail to form a tripod — grasps the left knee and binds the trunk to the doubled limbs. The whole posture is so suggestive of indolence and inefficiency, that an Englishman . . . requires great self-control to look at it with any degree of patience.” A real civilization, it was believed, would learn to sit. As recently as fifty years ago, Galen Cranz tells us in her history The Chair, the Japanese postwar economic miracle was ascribed by some Western experts to the abandonment of tatami mats.

Now we know an entire aesthetic and social order was based on a falsehood. The truth is this: to ask someone to sit is to take months away from his or her life. Meanwhile, to sit yourself, in full knowledge of the costs, is like tying a noose around your neck and then kicking out the support because you think it would be more comfortable. Chairs are forms of comfort that artfully conceal mechanisms of torture: they reduce your legs to jelly, atrophy the muscles in your lower back, curve your spine into unnatural shapes. Over months or years spent in a chair, robust human substance dissipates into muck, and the longer you sit, the sooner you die.

You have clicked through the Times articles and know the statistics. But if you are reading this sitting — here they are again. The American Cancer Society (which you would think would be studying other things) discovered from a 2010 study that women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die an early death than women who sat fewer than three hours. A similar assessment of men revealed an 18 percent higher likelihood of premature death. Other studies have confirmed that sitting increases your risk of developing diabetes, besides the challenges it poses to the long-term functioning and health of your limbs and muscles.

This discovery should have prompted a revolution in our entire manner of social life. We should have moved to conducting dinners standing up, as at the idli and dosa stands of South India; couches should have suffered catastrophic declines in sales; and long, flat desks should appear in homes only as ceremonial reminders of a naive, sedentary age. Tastes ought to have changed. The demure plywood shells of the Eames chairs should seem unaccountably malign.

Yet conventions of private social life remain untouched, and Saarinen’s womb chairs sell for thousands on 1stdibs.com. In 2013, the office furniture giant Steelcase, though it knows better, placidly came out with a new chair, Gesture, whose stated purpose is to accommodate the unnatural ways that we handle new devices. The company’s researchers did ethnographic studies of offices, carefully watching the strange postures that people assumed and making notes accordingly. It turns out that with their smartphones, people often splay their legs and slouch, or ball up into a fetus, their elbows tucked in, holding their glowing rectangles close to their faces, thumbs tapping. With laptops, they stretch and crunch at the same time, resulting in the terrible neologism, “the strunch”: with a laptop pushed far back on the desk, users crunch their abdomens and lean forward, stretching out their spine and neck, one hand propping up the head, another crawling across a trackpad. None of this is good for you, but there’s money to be made from human mistakes, and Steelcase will make it, until sitting disease gains wider recognition. The chair sells for $979.